The Intersection Of Job, Real Meaning, and Our Impact

So many of us in the classroom have this nagging feeling that sticks with us day after day, even year after year. It’s the feeling that drives us. But, it is also the feeling that haunts us. So many times, I sit back and wonder if I’ve done all that I could. Did intention match reality? The lessons may not have turned out perfectly, but did I give kids everything I had to give? Saying that one is a “kids first” educator is a whole lot easier than actually being one. Was I there when I needed to be? Did I react perfectly?It is so easy to throw away a day. It is easy to brush the imperfect day or action as an anomaly. Like we teach our kids, like we coach our athletes–you can learn from your mistakes and do better. But, here’s the thing that nobody ever really gets about the profession of teaching. Everything we do impacts lives. Every word we utter, every lesson we give, every kind word, every sarcastic word, and every reaction we give towards a kid’s behavior has an impact. Some may laugh that off. Some may say it is an overstatement. Fact is, we Teachers spend the most time with kids during their week. We are one of the most consistent forces in their lives. What we do matters.

I came back into the my building after running out to get a cup of coffee. I was in a rush. It was Monday and I had promised a couple of seniors that I would print out more scholarship recommendations. I had meant to do it before I left for coffee because I knew I had a meeting at central office. In my hurry to get that magical cup of Dunkin Donuts, I had forgotten to print the letters. I rushed back to the building, rattled.

When I came back into the building, one of my colleagues met me at the door. She was a bit rattled too. I’ve known this person for 20 years. She may have a tough exterior with adults, but she is one of the kindest, most compassionate teachers with kids. She makes every effort to make her classroom a safe place that is a challenging learning environment, but always one that is fair and obtainable for kids. She is always trying new things that she believes will benefit kids. She is constantly learning, constantly working with kids, and always ready to put herself out there for kids. She’s the teacher blasting music as kids walk into her room; she’s the teacher who comes in on a Saturday because her kids want to practice for their AP test. She’s the teacher talking to kids during her lunch period because they need to vent. Kids love her. But, today, she was rattled.

When you are a Teacher with that type of relationship with kids, you accept an additional responsibility and take on another role for students. You become their sounding board. You become the person a high school student will confide in, cry to, and say things that make worry for their health and safety. The teachers who take on this role are the special ones. They epitomize what it truly means to be a teacher. But, it comes with the price of taking on kids’ worries. It comes with the additional worry that colleagues who simply deliver curriculum don’t have to deal with. It comes with the job description of “always having the answers” for kids. Even though you don’t, you want to be there. And, sometimes, it can be difficult.

She was rattled. As I rushed to print out those recommendation letters, she followed. I knew she needed to unload.

“What’s up?”

“Gary, I can’t believe it. These narratives (essays) are so hard. I had three kids break down and cry as they were working on them.”

This wasn’t surprising to me. When you allow kids to write their own, authentic story, most don’t choose to write the easy one. They write narratives involving their own pain. It’s why teaching the narrative is my favorite part of writing instruction. It’s allowing kids to tell their story in the way they want to tell it and how they need to tell it.

“I mean, I gave them a bunch of different ideas, figuring they would take something fun. But, one kid is writing about his parent’s divorce. Another is writing about the difficulty of coming out.” And, so on she went. Then, she added more.

“Then, my next class…these kids are so stressed. One kid came in and broke down crying because of grades. One asked if she could stay in the room instead of going to lunch so she could study for one of her AP exams. Then another…”

But, I was rattled too, almost lost in my own head. And, it had nothing to do with the fact I was running around printing letters or worried about making the meeting.

Just 20 minutes before, I walked into Dunkin Donuts and was waiting on line. That’s when the email came from one of the seniors, asking where I was. Ugh, how could I forget? I have time; I’ll run back, print them, deliver them, and get to the meeting at central. I wrote back saying I would be right back.

I got up to the counter and saw a familiar face. The Manager of this Dunkin Donuts is a former student. He was a part of my original ESL crew; he was the comedian of the group; he was also the kid who could lead the class when he wanted to. He had–and still has–a charisma that can instantly make you smile. He was one of the driving forces of that class. That’s the class that taught me more than I taught them. He was a part of that class that took down the English Regents when nobody expected them to.

I got the usual greeting from him.

“Armeeeedaa, what’s up?”

But, he had a different look. I noticed it right away. Usually, he is this boisterous guy who immediately asks about the high school and about his other old teachers. This time, he was just sort of looking at me.

“What’s up? You good?”

He walked to the other side of the counter and came out. He got quiet and put his hand on my shoulder. Now, the 6’3″ kid always made fun of my 5’7″ (I’m being generous) height, but this was different.

“Did you hear about K.H.?”

“No, what?”

That’s when he gave me the look. I thought I knew what the look meant. I was immediately teary-eyed. How could someone in his early 20’s be gone?

“What happened?”

“He killed himself. You remember him, right?”

Of course I remembered him. He came into our class a couple of weeks into that year. He was kid who the girls liked. He was funny. He had a big smile. He liked to make jokes. He was wildly insecure about his English, but he put on a bravado that he had it all figured out and it didn’t bother him. He was also a kid who was easily frustrated. He was prone to getting really angry, seemingly in an instant. You could be joking around with him and the class and then he would get frustrated with something. We had a pretty good relationship, but I know I frustrated him sometimes. I would push him, even when the work was really hard. He was learning a new language and I was pushing him to pass a Regents exam. I thought that is was so important to prove the point. And, if I am honest, there were times during that year when my push for those results limited my understanding. If he didn’t work hard or would misbehave, I could get sarcastic, thinking that it was a non-threatening way to deal with him and it. He could take it, I thought. We were good like that, at least I thought so.

If I had that class today, I would still get the same academic results. But, my approach would be different. There would be more flexibility and even more understanding. I would’ve taken more time to counsel and make myself more available to them. I know better now, so I do better now. But, that doesn’t help that group. That certainly didn’t help K.H.

“Of course, I remember him. We would have some battles sometimes. But, he was a good kid. The two of you were so funny.”

“Wait a minute, let me find it.”

He went in the back and came out with his phone. He showed me the picture from eight years ago. It was me and that class. We were in my classroom. Everyone smiling. K.H. smiling.

I couldn’t say much after that. I got in my car to drive back to the building and started wondering. Did I ever say something to him that was too sarcastic? Did we ever have a talk about how I thought he was a great kid and that I admired the fact that even though he didn’t pass the regents the first time, he did on the second try? Did I ever take the time to figure out why he got mad so quickly?

I know today’s version of me would’ve talked to him about it and probably hooked him up with one of our counselors. I would definitely have made more time to talk with him outside of class. I would’ve looked for the cause of the anger. And, I would’ve made sure that he knew–absolutely knew without a shred of doubt–that I cared and that I was there for him. I know my students know that today. I’m not sure I always made that perfectly clear then. Maybe it was. But, there is no doubt now.

It is certainly human nature to think back to all of the negative. So, of course, my memory went to me kicking him out of class because of behavior. It went to the confrontations. It went to all of the times over our two years as teacher and student when I didn’t handle things as well as I should have. I’m not arrogant enough to think that I could’ve prevented it. But, I do believe that as a teacher, I could’ve been more of a positive influence. And, maybe, that could’ve made a difference.

So, I was rattled walking back into the building. But, as I was listening to my colleague telling me about her students, it just sort of all fit together. When she was done, I collected my thoughts for a second. Then, I was able to tell her what I’ve been feeling about the profession for quite some time. I just didn’t find the words until today.

“Those kids are lucky they have you. You are their safe space. They know, without a doubt, that you are on their side. They know you care. They know that you want them to do well. They can trust you. This is one of those days for you. I’ve had those days. It seems like every kid is needing you. It’s overwhelming. I’ve been there. Days like this are not fun. And, those days make you wish that you were the person who simply gives a lesson and moves on.  But, that’s not you.  They needed you and you are there for them. That’s so much more important than anything you taught them today.”

Yes, I said those corny words. And, yes, those corny words are true. We all have to teach our curriculum. We all have a responsibility to teach kids the skills they need to not only survive in the world, but to thrive. But, the true meaning of the job is infinitely more.

We must remember that everything we do has an impact on kids. Every word, every action, and every relationship we develop–or don’t develop–forms a life. We have to be willing to have “those days” when teaching becomes secondary and counselor, friend, motivator, detective, and confidant becomes the lead. To deny that these aren’t part of the job description ignores the importance of the role we play in a kid’s life.

Yes, it is tiring. Yes, it can be stressful. Yes, it can destroy lesson plans and take away some free time from your day. But, the true meaning of the job is to be there for kids. It is about listening to kids. It is about giving advice to kids. It is to advocate for kids. It is to minimize stress for kids. It is to lead kids to find help when needed. It is about helping them find their passions. It is about finding the “why” of behaviors. It is about making them believe, beyond all doubt, that you have their back.

My colleague–and many others–have it right. I strive for that each and every day. We aren’t perfect and we have bad days. But, we continue to strive to be everything we are needed to be.

That way, we never have to wonder “what if?”